Circles of Transformation: Transforming People, Congregations, and Communities

September 23, 2014

(Fred Blackwell) - “I’ve got people now!” So exclaimed Jose Maya, a recent Circles graduate in Dothan, Alabama. Dothan is the pilot site for Circles start-up in the AWFUMC. Maya is typical of those who can benefit from the Circles ministry. He’s struggling to make a living and wants to find a better way forward. After losing his job, he found himself in remedial math classes at the local community college. These classes were needed to prepare him for career retooling. Things are starting to look up for Maya. In September he received a promotion to the position of Customer Service Manager at a local Wal-Mart store. He attributes his successful interview “100% to things I learned through Circles.” He was interviewed for the position without notice or preparation. Maya states that he was able to articulate his strengths as a result of his Circle Leader training. When asked to describe Circles, Maya said this, “It’s about relationships. It’s not just about making a difference in my life; it’s about showing the community that there are alternatives. It’s about making impact and changing lives.”

The building of intentional friendships across racial, cultural, and socio-economic lines is central to the methodology. These friendships make cross-cultural discussion possible and fruitful. Rosalynn Richards, another Circles graduate describes it this way, “Circles is a positive place for adults. It’s a place where I can discuss my goals
and aspirations and have support and encouragement from Allies.”

The Allies who are participating in the Dothan pilot are from United Methodist churches in the community as well as from churches of other denominations. These Allies have themselves completed a training period which has prepared them to work effectively with those of other racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. Ruth Penton is a retired Diaconal Minister who lives in Enterprise, Alabama and who has worked with Circles for over a year. She says, “I learned that I didn’t know anything about poverty.”

North American models are most often built on the premise that poverty is about the absence of financial resources. While that is true, poverty is also about isolation and lack of positive relationships. Circles volunteers learn that we are all in some kind of poverty relative to God, others, ourselves, or the world around us. Circles Allies come to the table on a peer-to-peer basis with the families served. This is a much different setting from a mentor program where a hierarchal relationship is implied.

Kami Winfrey is a Circle Leader trainer in Dothan. She puts it this way, “Poverty is not an individual issue. It affects all of us. It affects society as a whole. Circles provides an atmosphere where different cultures, races, and socio-economic groups can learn about each other.”

As an example of the cultural diversity of the Dothan Circles group, Rosalynn Richards is an African-American female. Jose Maya is a Hispanic male. Two female Circle Leader graduates are natives of Nigeria.

Those in financial need are called Circle Leaders. After training, they are equipped to lead meetings with a team of Allies. The mission is to provide an environment that enables the Circle Leader to achieve specific, course-altering goals. In addition to relationship building, there are two additional core features that characterize the Circles initiative: 1) the identification of systemic community issues that hold people back, and 2) a jobs preparation component. The purpose of identifying systemic issues is to work collectively to address them.

Circles Coordinator Laurel Blackwell uses the example of the bus route in Phenix City. The bus route moved low income people around town but didn’t go anywhere close to free GED classes, free work readiness classes, welfare-to-work classes, or the community college. Low income people often feel powerless to address systemic issues. Circles provides an environment where citizens throughout the community see and understand issues that enable poverty. In the case of the bus route, an immediate change was made after one conversation with a member of the county commission, the contracting entity. A Circles leadership team in Brewton, Alabama, is now working on the systemic effects of predatory lending practices.

Circles requires a community-wide effort. It is not designed to be duplicative or to compete with any existing mission or ministry. In fact, it complements other local initiatives and builds bridges between initiatives where bridges might not exist today. Circles aims to help other community groups meet and exceed their objectives. Allies want to make sure that Circle Leaders (families in poverty) take advantage of every service available as they climb their way to a better family economic position. In fact, Circles Coordinator Fred Blackwell says, “If you’ve got something that’s already working – use it!”

A reality is that the traditional agency approach is not getting the job done. No one agency is responsible for getting a family out of poverty. A family goes to one place for child care assistance…to another for supplemental nutritional assistance…to another for the housing allowance, and so on. On the other hand, the goal of Circles is to actually stay with a family until that family achieves an income at least 200% of the poverty level.

There are more than 80 communities in the country that are employing this relatively new initiative. Success measures show increases in family income and assets with corresponding reductions in assistance benefits. Statistics also show that within a relatively short period of time, Circle Leader families are actually volunteering to assist others in the community. At the Circles table, everyone is a Child of God and Person of Worth who has something to contribute.

In our Conference, Dothan is the initial pilot site. The communities of Selma, Brewton, and Eufaula are well into start-up activity with local leadership teams. Mobile and Phenix City are now organizing leadership teams. Discussions about poverty and community issues have occurred in Montgomery and Marianna, Florida.

To learn more, see our conference website or visit Circles USA online. Questions and further exploration can be directed to Dr. Laurel Blackwell at 334-524-3652 or via e-mail addressed to

To read a national story on Circles presented by National Public Radio (NPR), click here